While most people on the dig site are looking for beautiful mosaics, sculptures, structures and the like, I am hoping that we uncover bones, specifically animal bones. So, when I heard my name being yelled multiple times by multiple people one day while cleaning up, I was excited. As I went over to the other trench-a well-deserved break from pick-axing- I saw a group of people huddled around one area. “We have a bone!” they yelled, as I stumbled and sort of slid down the dirt to the place they were digging. The group cleared and I saw a beautiful bone situated in the despised hard clay. Upon closer inspection, the bone was broken on one end and still covered in dirt on the other making it difficult to identify. Based on the uncovered outline of the bone and its size, I thought that the bone belonged to the rear leg bone of either a cow or horse. The next day I was able to find out if my hypotheses were correct.

After arriving on site the next day, I went with my dental picks, brushes, and Miranda, a friend who is also interested in bones (albeit human) to unearth the bone. While carefully removing clumps of dirt from the entrapped end, I detailed two facets or grooves in the bone. Immediately I knew that the bone was a tibia belonging to a mammal in the Perissodactyla Order. This order includes families of Equidae (horses, donkey/asses, zebras, and hybrids), Tapiridae (tapirs), and Rhinocerotidae (rhinoceros), but due to the location of the villa and dating of the site we can exclude the families of Tapiridae and Rhinocerotidae. Thus, the bone must belong to the family including horses, donkeys, and their hybrids. I was able to determine this because the grooves were diagonally formed into the end of the bone which articulates with the diagonally oriented single pulley astragalus (Fig. 1 and 2) (Biewener 1988). This diagonal orientation distinguishes the bone from bovids (cows, goats, and sheep) who have a double-pulley astragalus which is parallel to MSP or without a diagonal orientation (Fig. 2). Thus, this bone demonstrates that an equid, or at least an equid leg, was present at the site.

Figure 1: Left: Bone before removal. Right: Diagonal orientation of articulation with astragalus. Photo by Jack Conway.

Figure 2: Left: Equid astragalus. Single pulley shape, diagonal to MSP.  Photo from University of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils. Right: Bovid astragalus. Double pulley, parallel to MSP. Photo from BoneID.

Astragulus articulation

Figure 3: Articulation of tibia and astragulus in equid. Photo courtesy of Devin Ward from an unknown source.

Equids were a very important aspect of Roman society. “Despite its complicated political and social structure the Roman Empire depended entirely on oxen, mules, donkeys and horses for all its land transport and postal service”(Clutton-Brock 1992: 118). Throughout the Empire horses and other equids were used for trade, communication, military, and spectacle. In the Roman Empire, the type of equid can provide more information regarding the function of a site and the social status of its inhabitants. “Horses were used as cavalry mounts, chariot racing, riding (transport and hunting) and occasionally pulling carriages. Mules were mostly used for draught purposes (mostly road haulage but also for carriages), as pack animals (particularly in the army) and were occasionally ridden. Donkeys were used primarily for traction (turning mills and ploughing in areas of light soil) and as pack animals” (Johnstone 2004: 37). The wide variety of jobs and uses of these equids, makes identifying their remains from each an important piece of evidence for understanding the use of a site and its occupants.

mull drawn ballistae

Figure 4: Mule drawn ballistae from Trajan’s Column. Photo from Legio I Lynx Fulminata.

equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius

Figure 5: Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Photo from http://www.romancoins.info.

Due to the similarity of their bones, it is difficult to determine from a portion of a tibia (seen in Fig. 1) if the bone belongs to a horse, mule, or donkey. If the bone belongs to a horse, it was most likely used as a riding or carriage horse. In this context, the horse would have been used as a status symbol (Fig. 4), a means of personal transportation or for hunting. Due to the large size of the villa at our site, the inhabitants of the location at one point most likely had the means to care for horses.

The value of horses is also shown in the zooarchaeological assemblage found in Nitra-Chrenova in Slovakia. At this site, a fully articulated horse skeleton was found with pathological changes secondary to an infection from a perforating wound. Even though these changes were long-lasting and rendered the horse not rideable, the owner continued to treat and care for the horse until its death (Janeczek 2010).

Mules were also common in the Roman Empire and were “the primary baggage and draught animal of both the Roman army and the civilian Cursus publicus” (Johnstone 2004: 65). If the bone belongs to a mule, the mule would have been worked at the site as a work animal but also a status symbol as mules were not cheap (Johnstone 2004: 65). If the bone belongs to a donkey, it means that the site was used for some type of production ranging from agriculture to pottery as donkeys were used as the main work force in Roman society (Johnstone 2004: 66). On the site a rotary quern stone was recently discovered. This stone would have been powered by an equid, if not slaves, for the production of flour. The use of donkeys as a workforce is due to their ability to carry large loads, wide variety of diet, and resistance to many diseases. Due to their low maintenance and wide accessibility, donkeys were relatively cheap and sometimes even sold with the shipments they carried (Johnstone 2004: 70). With some luck and fortune, we might be able to find more bones of this individual. Through the analysis of zoological remains, one is able to not only determine the life, tribulations, and death of animal but also determine the lifestyle of its owners. With every bone there is new information about a site’s inhabitants (whether that be human or animal) and a new puzzle for me to solve.



Works Cited

Biewener, A. A., J. J. Thomason, and L. E. Lanyon. “Mechanics of locomotion and jumping in the horse (Equus): in vivo stress in the tibia and metatarsus.” Journal of Zoology 214, no. 3 (1988): 547-565.

Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Horse power: a history of the horse and the donkey in human societies. Natural History Museum Publications, 1992.

Janeczek, M., A. Chrószcz, Z. Miklikova, and M. Fabis. “The pathological changes in the hind limb of a horse from the Roman Period.” Veterinarni Medicina 55, no. 7 (2010): 331-335.

Johnstone Cluny, Jane. “A Biometric Study of Equids in the Roman World.” PhD diss., PhD thesis. University of York, York, 2004.


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